Friday, December 31, 2010

Nomadreader's Favorite Books of 2010

2010 was a wonderful year of reading. I wanted to be a deliberate reader, and looking back on the books I read this year, I'm quite pleased with the quality of them. I stuck to literary fiction for the most part. I tried to read from the award lists, and I discovered many of these books on the award lists. Without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2010 (when I made my list, there happened to be ten!) All the books I read in 2010 were eligible regardless of when the books were published. (Clicking on the links will take you to my full, original review. Clicking on the book cover will take you to it's page on Amazon.)

Trespass: A Novel10. Trespass by Rose Tremain (longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize)
I will remember 2010 as the year I finally read Rose Tremain. This hauntingly beautiful novel has stayed with me.
Favorite passage: "Even here, where life went along more slowly than in England, she could sense the restless agitation people felt to make real and tangible to them the fugitive wonders that flickered into their mind."
The verdict: I loved both the story and its deeper thematic ideas. Trespass is an accessible literary novel with immense depth. It's rare I want to reread a book as son as I finish it, but I'm certain there are more subtleties and clues I've overlooked.

Scottsboro: A Novel9. Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize)
I am a huge fan of historical fiction based on real people, and Feldman is one of the genre's best (her other fictionalized historical novels include The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank and Lucy, about FDR.) She took the tough issue of the Scottsboro boys and inserted a driven, Northern, female journalist into the action.

The verdict: I loved Scottsboro, but it wasn't always an easy read. Knowing it was based on a true story was absolutely gut-wrenching for me. I loved the character of Alice, and I loved the way Feldman placed the Scottsboro case in the context of not only Southern history but also international history.

So Much for That: A Novel8. So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (finalist for the 2010 National Book Award)
This novel snuck up on me. As I was reading it, I thought it was an issue book, and I am not one who needs convincing about the sorry state of the U.S. healthcare system. Beneath the political seriousness, however, Shriver deftly crafted a moving novel that has stuck with me long after I read it.
The verdict: So Much for That is both timely and timeless. This novel may age in fascinating ways as the U.S. healthcare system changes, but it will remain a brilliantly nuanced character study that also examines contemporary public health policy and politics.

7. The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (winner of the 2010 Giller Prize)
Partly war novel and partly a daughter's ode to understanding her father, Johanna Skibsrud's writing catapulted this novel to my top 10. Skibsrud is my age, and it's the first novel I've read that tackles the Vietnam War from the perspective of its veteran's children. She's a poet, and her prose is luminous.
Favorite passage: "I had thought in those years, I suppose, having learned the lesson from my mother well, that it was foolish to ask for too much out of life, afterwards only to live in the wake of that expectation, an irreducible disappointment. But what pain, I thought now, could be greater than to realize that even the practical reality for which you had assumed to settle upon, did not hold--that even that was illusory?" (p. 53)
The verdict: The Sentimentalists is a novel I will buy to re-read again and again. It's easily one of my favorite reads of the year, but it's not a book that will appeal to everyone. If you adore non-linear narratives, character-driven novels and gorgeous, comma-filled prose, then you will adore it.
*Being published in the U.S. on May 2, 2011!

If You Follow Me: A Novel (P.S.)6. If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous
If You Follow Me was perhaps the most anticipated novel of 2010 for me. Curtis Sittenfeld first mentioned it in print in April 2009, 11 months before its release. With high expectations, I was still wowed. At the time I said, "Great literature transcends its characters and plot and brings greater understanding and critical thought, and If You Follow Me is that kind of great literature." I still agree. I loved the story and the understanding of humanity it brought, and it's one I hope to read again and again. It's a novel I've handed to more than one friend and said, "drop everything and read this novel. You'll adore it." And they have.

A Visit from the Goon Squad5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Attempting to describe this novel is incredibly difficult, and it's simpler to say, "just read it. Trust me." I'm still hedging my bet and crossing my fingers it will win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and get the award distinction it deserves.
Favorite passage: "Coz liked the couch, he'd told her, because it relieved them both of the burden of eye contact. 'You don't like eye contact?' Sasha had asked. It seemed like a weird thing for a therapist to admit. 'I find it tiring,' he'd said. 'This way, we can both look where we want.'
The verdict: Although difficult to describe, this novel is easy to love. Highly recommended for fans of literary fiction, short stories and good narratives.

4. White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey (shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize)
I was pulling for this novel to win the Orange Prize, but sadly it did not. It's the story of the marriage of George and Sabine Harwood, a young British couple who move to Trinidad in the 1950's. The novel begins in 2006, then jumps back in time to the couple's first days in Trinidad. I love unconventional narratives, and Roffey used time and language so beautifully to exemplify time and place. 
Favorite passage: "I loved George but our marriage was always under threat. Other men wanted me and other women wanted George. This was both thrilling and worrying."
*Being published in the U.S. on April 26, 2011!

Black Water Rising: A Novel3. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, 2010 Edgar Award finalist, & 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist)
Black Water Rising is a literary mystery set in 1981 that examines social issues. It's beautifully written, suspenseful and it's take on social issues is still relevant today. 
Favorite passage: "Oppression was pandemic, like a cancer; wherever it existed, it would spread. And maybe justice could work the same way; maybe it could spread too. Which meant that the problems in Africa, say--poverty and the imperialism that created it--were as important as the problems here at home; they were actually one and the same."
The verdict:It's a smart, page-turning literary thriller packed with history and social intrigue. I loved it. I adored it. I cannot shut up about it's brilliance.

Stiltsville: A Novel2. Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel
I read Stiltsville based on Curtis Sittenfeld's recommendation (she does not let me down.) After feeling some malaise with my Booker Prize reading binge, I wanted something deeply American to read, and I found it. I was amazed how much I loved this novel, but it has all the elements I adore. It's the story of a marriage. Each chapter is a different year in their marriage. Although it's told chronologically, there are years skipped. Often the years correspond with crucial moments of Miami and Florida history. It's both the story of a couple and a place, and I adored it. I bought it for more than one person this year.
The verdict: "It's the most emotionally engaging novel I've read in quite some time. I often struggle writing reviews for books I adore, and I found nothing to criticize in Stiltsville. It may not be a universally appealing novel, but it has become one of my favorites, and I eagerly await Susanna Daniel's next novel."

Room: A Novel1. Room by Emma Donoghue (shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize)
It should come as no surprise the book I rated 6 stars out of 5 is my favorite of the year. For those who haven't read it, I still don't want to share any tidbits of the story. I fear I wouldn't have loved it quite as much if I knew some of its surprises before-hand. 
The verdict: "Room is intense, but it's so well written, relatable and humane. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I do recommend, however, that you don't start it until you have time to finish it. It is a one-setting novel."

Overall thoughts: 
  • All ten are by women. (Freedom almost made the cut, as I'm loving it more and more after the fact.)
  • Four are debut novels (Sentimentalists, Black Water Rising, Stiltsville, If You Follow Me)
  • Two were recommended by Curtis Sittenfeld (Stiltsville and If You Follow Me)
  • One Giller Prize read
  • One National Book Award read
  • Two Booker Prize reads
  • Three Orange Prize reads (and I won't be surprised if Trespass and Room make at least the longlist in 2011)
  • All ten were new-to-me authors in 2010!
Thanks for reading with me in 2010. I'm hoping 2011 brings more literary treats!

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

movie review: The King's Speech

The King's SpeechThe backstory: Already nominated for multiple Golden Globes, Screen Actor's Guild, Critic's Choice Award and Independent Spirit Awards, I was eager to see The King's Speech when it came out on Christmas. It went on to win 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture at the 83rd Oscars.

The basics: Colin Firth plays King George VI of Britain as he tries to stop stuttering to lead England.

My thoughts: With no disrespect to Jeff Bridges, I think Colin Firth should have won the Best Actor Oscar last year for his performance in A Single Man. I think he finally will win Best Actor this year for his amazing performance in The King's Speech. I was mesmerized by his performance. Geoffrey Rush was similarly amazing, and the scenes with the two of them were magnificent. The screenplay was well-written. It captured enough background to place the film in context, but it never let the story get bogged down with its history. I laughed, I cried, and I joined the rest of the audience in spontaneous applause at the film's conclusion. It was a lovely way to spend my Christmas night, and it's a film I will keep recommending to everyone.

The verdict: The King's Speech is the perfect blend of humor, history and inspiration. It's my favorite film of 2010.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5) 
Length: 118 minutes
Release date: It's in these theaters now
Source: I paid to see it at Albany's finest Spectrum Theatre.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

graphic novel review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist: A Graphic NovelThe backstory: I've only read one Paulo Coelho novel (Eleven Mintues), but I enjoyed it, and I was eager to read the much-talked about Alchemist in its new graphic novel form.

The basics: "Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within." (Publisher's description)

My thoughts: I was somewhat familiar with the plot of The Alchemist even though I haven't read the book, and I think the prior knowledge was helpful. The story flowed quickly, but I really had an aversion to the artwork; it didn't suit the story. The artwork was all done in a classic, comic book style, which seemed antithetical to the message of the story. I found the depictions of the female characters particularly odd. While most things were hyper-realistic, the women maintained Barbie-like curves. Overall, I felt a big disconnect with the message of the story and the artwork. The artwork trumped the story. Not having read the novel itself, it's hard to say if it's the story that doesn't hold much appeal because I've never had such a strong negative reaction to the artwork in a graphic novel before. 

The verdict: I was mesmerized enough to finish it, but I can't recommend it to others as anything more than a quick, mildly satisfying read.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: December 1, 2010
Source: I received this book from the publisher for review via TLC Book Tours. Thank you!

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

book review: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

Sing You Home: A NovelThe backstory: I am not a reader who eagerly awaits the latest Jodi Picoult book. In my pre-blogging days, I read and loved Keeping Faith. Last year, I read My Sister's Keeper and liked it. Then I read Handle With Care and didn't much care it. Still, I appreciate her advocacy for literacy and women authors. When I heard her latest book (coming out in March 2011) tackled issues of gay rights and infertility, I was doubly intrigued.

The basics: Sing You Home is the story of Zoe Baxter, a music therapist who has struggled to get pregnant for years; her husband Max, a recovered alcoholic who owns a lawncare business; Max's brother and sister-in-law, devout Christians who have also struggled with fertility issues; and Vanessa, a high school guidance counselor.

My thoughts: In typical Picoult style, this story is told from multiple points of view. It was a diversion for her, however, as most of the action lies with Vanessa, Zoe and Max. For me, the story wasn't compelling or convincing enough, and Picoult's writing isn't strong enough to carry 480 pages. In some ways, Picoult tried to do too much (homosexuality and infertility? I expected more characters), but she really did quite little. I admire her tackling a difficult subject when many presume her audience to be middle American women. Will this book change anyone's mind? I'm doubtful. Did Picoult try to see the controversial issues from multiple angles? Yes.

Picoult lovers will find much in this novel is familiar: medical and legal battles told from multiple points of view. Even though I've only read three of her novels, her formula struck me as annoying. Vanessa was by far my favorite character, but I didn't feel much empathy for anyone. Sure, there were compelling scenes that brought me to tears. Yes, I read the novel in two days, which is impressive for a 480 pages, but it was a quick read. There weren't sentences I lingered on to appreciate their structure or wonder.

The verdict: Picoult lovers will delight in another familiar tale of legal and medical battles, but this novel won't  entice those who have grown weary of her formula or those who are leery of venturing into Picoult-land.

Note: There were many mentions of music in this novel, and Picoult wrote songs for a cd, but the cd was not included in my ARC. Before several chapters, there were cues to play particular tracks.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 480 pages (but a quick read)
Publication date: March 1, 2011 pre-order it from Amazon or an independent bookstore
Source: Crazy Book Tours

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Friday, December 17, 2010

book review: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden (Modern Library Classics)The backstory: Anthony Trollope is one of my father's favorite authors, and when I heard the December theme for the Classics Circuit was Trollope, I found the perfect excuse to finally read one of his novels. Yes, I picked the shortest one, but it's also the first in a series, and I'm fascinated to tales of clergy in the British countryside.

The basics: I'll let Modern Library treat you to a synopsis: "The first of Trollope's popular Barsetshire novels, set in the fictional cathedral town of Barchester, The Warden centers on the honorably cleric Septimus Harding, one of Trollope's most memorable characters. When Harding is accused of mismanaging church funds, his predicament lays bare the complexities of the Victorian world and of nineteenth-century provincial life."

My thoughts: For a book with only 209 pages, the reading experience was quite varied for me. There were times I adored Trollope's language:
Mr. Harding had fully made up his mind to tel the bishop everything; to speak of his daughter's love, as well as his own troubles; to talk of John Bold in his double capacity of future son-in-law and present enemy; and though he felt it to be sufficiently disagreeable, now was his time to do it.
I was surprised that I laughed out loud from time to time. Although I wouldn't call it a comedy, there certainly were comedic elements, particularly when taken in context:
"One evening call," said he, "is worth ten in the morning. It's all formality in the morning; real social talk never begins till after dinner. That's why I dine so early, so as to get as much as I can out of it."
Most of the novel was quite engaging, but it also dragged at times. I imagine there cultural clues I missed, even with the fantastic introduction and notes provided in the Modern Library edition.

The verdict: I found myself filled with pride more than enjoyment at the novel's conclusion. Fans of Victorian literature will likely enjoy it and others will not. I fall somewhere in between, and while I loved some parts more than other, I'm certainly happy to have experienced Trollope and his writing.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 209 pages
Publication date: originally published in 1855
Source: my local public library

To read more reviews of The Warden:
Reading, Writing, Working, Playing
Caribou's Mom

The full Trollope tour list is here. You may also sign up for the January tour (Ancient Greek classics until December 20.)

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday Swap fun!

I adore this time of year, but one of my favorite new traditions is the Book Blogger Holiday Swap. Last year, I didn't know my giver or receiver. This year, I didn't know the person I shopped for, so I was thrilled to get a package in the mail from Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm, a book blogger I communicate with frequently through Twitter and our blogs!
Here's what I found inside my gorgeously wrapped package:

  • homemade cocoa mix
  • a sweet and beautiful handmade card
  • a GORGEOUS, homemade bookmark in my favorite color of blue
  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, which is on two of my TBR lists: Orange Prize shortlist and New Yorker 20 Under 40 (plus it's one of Beth's all-time favorite books!)
I can't wait to dig into The History of Love, and I hope it will be one of my first 2011 reads. Thanks, Beth!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday: I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle

 Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking The Spine 
to highlight an upcoming release you can't wait to read. 

I'll Never Get Out of This World AliveMy pick this week is I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle. Those who know me know I've had a long love of Steve Earle. He's one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and his album Transcendental Blues remains one of my all-time favorites. Bonus point: my favorite song on Transcendental Blues, "I Don't Want to Lose You Yet," was the first song my husband and I danced to at our wedding. (Yes, we did get married at the Country Music Hall of Fame Research Library, and I think Steve and Hank Williams would be proud of the first dance song choice there.)

When I read this week's Library Journal Pre-pub Alert, I actually squealed when I read that Steve Earle had a novel coming out in May. The description sounds amazing too: 
"One of the last people to see Hank Williams alive and said to have given him that last, fatal dose of morphine, Doc Ebersole is living in a cheap room in San Antonio’s red-light district and doing the odd medical patch-up (he’s lost his license). Oh, and he’s haunted by Williams’s ghost, which is none too happy when Doc starts doing better after he treats Mexican immigrant Graciela, who has a miraculous healing touch."
The country music fans will recognize the title of the novel as the title of a Hank Williams song too.

I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive will be published May 12, 2011.

Pre-order it through Amazon or an independent bookstore.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

book review: The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

The SentimentalistsThe backstory: The Sentimentalists, the first novel from Johanna Skibsrud, won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which recognizes excellence in Canadian fiction.

The basics: In some ways, The Sentimentalists is a war novel. In other ways, it's a daughter's ode to her father. Ultimately, my inability to share basic plot details of a short novel is a testament to how much power Skibsrud packs into those 224 pages.

My thoughts:  I read The Sentimentalists in one sitting, which is remarkable enough alone for me, but this single sitting is made more remarkable because I started it on a Sunday night at 11 p.m. when I got home from an exhausting night waiting tables and had to be at work at 9 a.m. Monday morning. I lost sleep for this one, and it was so worth it.  Skibsrud's writing grabbed me from the earliest pages: 
"My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he'd ever read floating around in his mind" (p. 10). 
She paints such a human portrait of her father, and as he is revealed through anecdotes and tales, an amazing depth of character and time appears.
"So that even in those after-years, when my father had disappeared completely beyond the line of our horizon, it seemed as though, on fine days, I could see him still--a faint outline, a trace of himself--buoyed by the stubbornness of my memory, walking tentatively along the endless and otherwise uninhabited waters of my childhood." (p. 21)
Although I adored it, The Sentimentalists is not a novel everyone will enjoy. It's a reader's novel, filled with long, comma-driven sentences you will either love or loathe:
"...she passed on her own love of the water only through the stories that she would sometimes tell. Stories that made her seem, instead of closer, only further away--as though she surrendered herself, in the telling of them, to her own, separate, antidiluvian underworld, which was what (influenced, I suppose, by the buried town of Henry's backyard) we imagined all stories to be." (p. 18)
It's rare that I want to instantly reread a novel, but I would have gladly started again at page one if it weren't the middle of the night to rediscover passages like this one:
"I had thought in those years, I suppose, having learned the lesson from my mother well, that it was foolish to ask for too much out of life, afterwards only to live in the wake of that expectation, an irreducible disappointment. But what pain, I thought now, could be greater than to realize that even the practical reality for which you had assumed to settle upon, did not hold--that even that was illusory?" (p. 53)
The verdict: The Sentimentalists is a novel I will buy to re-read again and again. It's easily one of my favorite reads of the year, but it's not a book that will appeal to everyone. If you adore non-linear narratives, character-driven novels and gorgeous, comma-filled prose, then you will adore it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: Good news, U.S. readers--Norton will publish it May 2, 2011.
Source: the lovely folks at interlibrary loan were able to put a copy in my minds (and thank you to UNC-Chapel Hill for loaning it!)

Do yourself a favor and pre-order this novel from Amazon or an independent bookstore.
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